Some time in the late 1970s, woodwind player Jim Horn was making a record with the guitar virtuoso Jose Feliciano in a studio at RCA Records in Hollywood when he ran into an old friend with whom he’d recorded on Elvis Presley records. The friend, future Rock and Roll Hall of Famer James Burton, brought Horn to meet John Denver, who was recording in an adjacent studio.
“John said, ‘I know who you are! We’ll have to get you in here and get some flute on some songs,’” Horn said recently in a phone interview. “I said ‘Sounds great to me!’”
The chance meeting began a collaboration that ran from 1978 until 1995, with Horn playing on Denver’s records and touring the world with him. Horn — a legendary session player who has worked with a who’s-who ranging from Frank Sinatra to the Beach Boys (on “Pet Sounds”) to the Rolling Stones and Michael Jackson — is in Aspen this week along with John Denver fans and bandmates for the annual John Denver celebration.
Horn will join Chris Collins and Boulder Canyon on-stage at the Wheeler Opera House on Saturday for their annual concert. He’ll be a special guest along with frequent Denver collaborator Bill Danoff (who co-wrote “Take Me Home, Country Roads” among other hits).
Horn and Denver’s two-decade-long collaboration began in that Los Angeles studio with a simple question.
“I said, ‘OK, John, you just want me to play flute on everything?’” Horn recalled. “He said, ‘Let’s try that for now and if I’m singing about the wind or the birds or the ocean or anything like that you can emulate those sounds in the background.’”
Denver also told him it didn’t have to be the same every time out and encouraged him to improvise. That ended up being a signature of the John Denver live show up to Denver’s untimely death in 1997, and that’ll be how Horn approaches Saturday night’s show with Collins. Horn and Danoff will also share some stories of their time with Denver.
The concert will focus on the songs that Danoff wrote and performed on with Denver, along with the survey of the Denver catalog that has made Chris Collins the foremost interpreter of his work in recent years.
“This is going to be a different show for us,” says Collins. “The quality of music rises even further when [Horn and Danoff] join us.”
Collins strikes a resemblance to Denver, and often accentuates it with a Denver-styled haircut and granny glasses. But he doesn’t do an impersonation.
“We try to present John Denver’s music in a John Denver style without actually imitating his voice and his humor,” Collins explains. “We don’t go back and research what he said and those types of things. We bring the audience something that’s reminiscent of a John Denver show but that feels completely fresh.”
Denver’s message of peace, love and environmentalism, Horn says, couldn’t be more relative than in the tumultuous year of 2016. He recalled performing the anti-war anthem “Let Us Begin” and the “Plant a Tree For Your Tomorrow” campaign fondly.
“He was really tuned in to all the things that were going on in the world,” recalls Horn. “And some people wanted to hear more love songs like ‘Annie’s Song’ and ‘Sunshine on My Shoulders,’ they were missing that. But they were still listening. And that’s what’s important now, is just keeping the music and the message alive.”